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India’s Struggle to Track New Covid Variants Could Make Crisis Worse | India News


NEW DELHI: The good news is that the vaccines work against a new strain of virus circulating in India that has spread to several other countries.
The bad news is that it will not be just the new version of the pathogen that will emerge from an outbreak of this scale, underscoring the urgency of mapping other possible variants that may currently be traversing India’s tight population of 1.4 billion people.
As infections surge by more than 300,000 cases over 14 days in a row, bringing India’s count to more than 20 million, the country’s limited ability to track new mutations emerging from its outbreak is a growing concern for scientists. .

Second- or even third-generation versions of the variant known as B.1.617 may already be circulating in India, and some may be more dangerous, said William Haseltine, a former Harvard Medical School professor who now chairs the Access Health think tank. International.
“India has the necessary genome sequencing capabilities, but it needs to have a massive surveillance program,” Haseltine said. “I will be on the lookout for more new variants, given the opportunity the virus has had with such a massive outbreak.”
The variants are already outpacing vaccination progress in many parts of the world, causing larger outbreaks that spread faster. While some wealthy nations that secured effective vaccines early have seen their epidemics subside, the virus is still spreading like wildfire in developing economies, prolonging the pandemic.
Discredited Super Mutant
Mutations happen when the virus replicates, and India’s unprecedented rise is driving new cases to world records, even as wealthier economies like the United States and Israel quickly reopen. Fearing an influx of infections and taking B.1.617 into account, Singapore, the UK and Tanzania are among the countries that have restricted travel to and from India.
Australia has banned its citizens from returning from India and imposed penalties of approximately $ 50,000 and five years in prison for offenders.
The Indian strain has been called a double mutant due to the presence of two changes in the virus genome, called E484Q and L452R. Both affect a portion of the spike protein, called the receptor-binding domain, which is key for the virus to enter cells.
Some researchers estimate that the B.1.617 variant is as transmissible as the B.1.1.7 variant that emerged in the UK, which is believed to be up to 70% more transmissible than previous versions of the virus.
However, initial analyzes indicate that the Indian version, now classified as a variant of interest by the World Health Organization, poses a limited threat and does not appear to be more dangerous.
Covaxin, the inactivated virus vaccine made by India’s Bharat Biotech International Ltd, and the AstraZeneca vaccine, called Covishield in India, are effective against the strain to prevent serious disease, said Rakesh Mishra, director of the Center for Cell and Molecular Biology at Hyderabad, one of the laboratories that analyzes virus samples. Data on the response to Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine is still being collected, Mishra said, but it is likely to be effective.
BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin said he was confident that the mRNA injection he is doing with his partner Pfizer would work against the mutant from India, although testing is still ongoing. “The Indian variant has the same mutation that we have already investigated and against which our vaccine was also effective,” he said last week.
Singapore, which tightened restrictions on social distancing this week after discovering cases related to the Indian variant, has also seen vaccines hold up well to prevent serious illnesses, said Kenneth Mak, director of medical services at the country’s Health Ministry. city ​​State. But “vaccination does not prevent you from becoming 100% infected,” he said in a briefing on Tuesday.
Ravindra Gupta’s team at the University of Cambridge recently studied the two mutations that appear in the receptor-binding domain of the Indian variant spike protein. The team tested viruses made to simulate the variant against the serum of nine people who had already received a single dose of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine.
“We wanted to know if this double mutant really is a double whammy,” said Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the Cambridge Institute for Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Diseases. What they found was that while each of the mutations could partially evade neutralizing antibodies, the two mutations did not combine to create an even greater ability to evade immune protection.
“They don’t combine to make a super mutant,” Gupta said. “It kind of debunks this view that this double mutant is doubly evading neutralizing antibodies.”
While the findings ease concerns around B.1.617, researchers are turning to the next set of variants as the India outbreak continues. Genomic surveillance can provide crucial information on the new forms of this shape-shifting virus, critical to preventing further waves and developing the next generation of vaccines.
In the US, recent studies published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that a variant that caused concern when it first emerged in New York is no more dangerous than previous strains, while a pair of mutants that did emerge in Southern California they frequently cause discernible and serious illnesses than lineages that circulate nationally in general. ”
WHO has been monitoring variants through a global laboratory working group, said Maria Van Kerkhove, the agency’s technical director. Information on new variants is coming “fast and furious,” he said.
But as its healthcare system is on edge and Prime Minister Narendra Modi resists calls for closure, the country’s labs are ill-equipped to keep up with the necessary monitoring. Genomic sequencing that can identify new strains and track their progress is still relatively scarce in India, where only about 11,000 viruses have been tested, according to Mishra.
While countries like the UK monitor between 5% and 10% of cases, in India far fewer are sequenced. Doing so would require testing tens of thousands of samples daily, and not leaving a large blind spot, according to Ashish Jha, dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University in Rhode Island.
“What genomic surveillance does,” he said, “is that it really helps you track where infections are going and how things are spreading in a way that India was pretty blind.”

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